Among big offseason additions, Packers retain several key special teams contributors

By: Paul Bretl 5/16/24

Naturally, the big offseason additions will grab all the headlines, but in football, the ultimate team game, those back-end of the roster additions can carry weight as well, especially on special teams.

In addition to bringing in Xavier McKinney and Josh Jacobs during free agency, the Green Bay Packers were also able to retain several key special teams contributors.

Tyler Davis would miss all of the 2023 season after suffering an ACL injury during the preseason. At that time, special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia said losing Davis was like losing his right hand, given all the roles he filled in that phase of the game.

During the 2022 season, Davis led the Packers in special teams snaps with 344, playing across five different phases. He was also third on the team in tackles. Davis was one of those under-the-radar re-signings this offseason that could end up making an impact this season.

“We’re just excited, not only for Tyler but organizationally, to get him back,” said Bisaccia when meeting with reporters. “What he brings spirit-wise, what he brings energy-wise, his ability to play multiple positions for us in the kicking game. I know they’re excited about getting him back on offense as well.”

Along with Davis, the Packers would re-sign linebackers Eric Wilson and Kristian Welch. Wilson led the team in special teams snaps with 345, while Welch had the fourth-most. Wilson finished second on the team in tackles and Welch third.

Cornerback Robert Rochell is also returning. Rochell played 141 special teams snaps from Week 9 on and had the sixth-best special teams grade from PFF on the Packers. With a healthy cornerback room, Bisaccia should get Corey Ballentine – another offseason re-signing – back as a special teams contributor as well.

“So we are excited to get those guys back,” said Bisaccia. “We kind of fought through this last year. Those guys were on the street and it seems like we’re the only ones that seem to want them. 

“But, I’m real excited that they’re back and they do a really good job of getting in supreme physical condition and setting the example for everybody else of what it’s supposed to look like. And they understand the importance of their job and their role.”

A not-so-under-the-radar re-signing was the Packers being able to bring Keisean Nixon back–a now two-time All-Pro return man who should benefit greatly from the new kickoff rules that are expected to drastically increase the number of return opportunities. In each of the last two years, Nixon has led the NFL in kick return yards and finished top-three in average yards per return. 

It’s Nixon’s fearlessness that has helped generate so many big returns. But on the flip side, there is a balance that has to be struck between being overly aggressive and making the right decision based on game and situation. Perhaps the new rules will take some of that decision-making out of the equation, and give Nixon more chances to simply go make plays.

“You have to take the bad with the good, I guess,” said Bisaccia, “but there’s a point where the decision making process has to click for you and you make the right decision for your team, right? It’s not, I don’t have to prove myself every single play. I think he’s hopefully got to the point where he’s proven that he can be an accomplished return player.

“Now make the decision that fits exactly what we’re trying to do in each individual game. so, he’s just the kind of guy that thinks he can score every time he touches it. And you don’t want to take that away from him, but you want to get him to where he can make the right decision for all of us involved.”

While the Packers have several foundational players returning on their special teams unit, this is a group that has to also perform better in 2024.

During Bisaccia’s first season as coordinator for the Packers, he took Green Bay from being ranked 32nd in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings during the 2021 season to 22nd in 2022. However, last year, the Packers fell to 29th, with inconsistent play, missed tackles, missed field goals, and the second-most special teams penalties all creating issues.

In addition to the continuity that the Packers have in this phase of the game going into 2024, a few of their draft picks, including Ty’Ron Hopper, Evan Williams, and Kitan Oladapo could play important roles in helping this unit bounce back this season. 

“We drafted a lot of young guys that play the linebacker position, can play the safety position,” said Bisaccia. “We have skill players that we think can be viable candidates early in the kicking game. So hopefully they’ll get themselves in good enough shape to keep up with those guys that you’ve mentioned (Wilson and Welch) and then they’ll set the example of what it’s supposed to look like.”

These special teams specific moves that GM Brian Gutekunst made this offseason is a somewhat new approach for the Packers that began when Bisaccia took over as coordinator. Prior to that, special teams were more of an afterthought, with contributions on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball being prioritized in the roster construction, and we saw the results of that decision making on the field. As the old saying goes, you get what you emphasize. 

This is a Packers team with sky-high expectations in 2024. A young and ascending offense coupled with what is hopefully an improved defense is a recipe for success, but when it comes to being one of those final few teams still playing at the end of the season, it takes contributions from all three phases. The Packers’ special teams unit doesn’t have to be elite, but it has to be better than 29th.

“I think it’s important, obviously the way in which Brian views all of this and the conversations that we have,” added Bisaccia. “And then the part that Matt plays in what we’re trying to do, how we’re trying to set field position here for offense and for defense.”